The comments by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Singapore came as China’s premier – for a second day – struck a conciliatory note on the trade spat, saying he was hopeful that the two sides will find a way to prevent it escalating further.
“I still hope we can hold talks based on mutual respect, balance and mutual benefits to resolve the issue. There are no winners in a trade war,” Premier Li Keqiang said at a function ahead of a meeting with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
US Vice President Mike Pence will attend the Singapore meetings instead of President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly panned existing multilateral trade pacts as unfair and has railed against China over intellectual property theft, entry barriers to American businesses and a yawning US trade gap.
It was not clear if Li and Pence would meet separately on the sidelines of the Singapore meetings, which would be a prelude to a summit scheduled between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of the month in Buenos Aires.
Before he arrived in Singapore on Monday, Li said China would further open its economy in the face of rising protectionism, though he did not refer directly to China’s bruising trade war with the United States.
Mahathir, a veteran strongman of the region who in May returned to the prime minister’s office he had occupied for 22 years, said other developed countries will take their cue from Washington and Beijing if protectionism is allowed to spiral.
“The trade tension between the two world powers is bound to create a domino effect that will affect trade reactions and will be a reason for other developed countries to adopt protective measures against developing countries, including the Asean countries,” Mahathir told a business forum.
He said “the rise of trade protectionism, resurgent nationalistic movements and inward-looking policies” seemed to be emerging even among the 10 nations of ASEAN.
That was echoed by summit host Singaporean Prime Lee Hsien Loong, who told a welcome ceremony for his Asean counterparts that “the international order is at a turning point”.